The Rise and Fall of Babylon

Calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it,
I will also do it.--Isaiah 46:11

David Rice

Early in the sixth century B.C. Babylon was the instrument of God's punishment on wayward Judah. But from the beginning God had decreed a limit to its power. It would extend for only seven decades, then fall to the Persians, who would release the Israelites and permit their return to Judea.

Babylon was not the first extensive empire of the Middle East. Assyria preceded it, used by Jehovah to break the power of the northern ten-tribe kingdom of Israel 136 years earlier. The flood of Assyrian armies even flowed southward and engulfed Judah, as Isaiah predicted: "He shall overflow … he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings [armies] shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel" (Isaiah 8:8). It did indeed rise to the "neck" of Judea; Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah. But because of Hezekiah's prayer of faith, God decimated Sennacherib's army, apparently by plague, and Judah retained their independence. Thus Assyria was not among the four "world empires" which conquered Judah and which were represented in the book of Daniel.

Four Empires

The first of those four empires was Babylon. Babylon broke away from Assyria under the leadership of Nabopolassar, the first king of "Neo-Babylonia," who ruled twenty-one years before the government passed at his death to his more famous son Nebuchadnezzar.

The armies of Nabopolassar, and their allies the Medes, jointly sacked the Assyrian capital Nineveh in 612 B.C. Two years later the Babylonian army took Harran, where the retreating Assyrian forces gathered for a last sanctuary. The following year Egypt came northward to shore up the remnants of the Assyrian field army, meeting and killing good king Josiah on the way (2 Kings 23:29, NIV). The Assyrians were initially successful, but were unable to retake the city that was relieved by reinforcements from Babylon.

Four years later, the year Nabopolassar weakened and died in Babylon, crown prince Nebuchadnezzar marched the Babylonian army to Carchemish on the west bank of the Euphrates, north of Israel. Pharaoh Necho of Egypt came northward again to confront the Babylonians, but it proved disastrous for him. Nebuchadnezzar chased him southward to the border of Egypt, taking all the intervening area, including Jerusalem (Jeremiah 46:2; Daniel 1:1; 2 Kings 24:7).

Nebuchadnezzar's reign of forty-three years was followed by his son Evil-Merodach (2 Kings 25:27). After two years he was overturned by a former commander, Neriglissar (the Nergalsharezer of Jeremiah 39:3). He was succeeded briefly by his son Labashi-Marduk, whose ineptness led to his replacement by the statesman Nabonidus. Evidently he was married to a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, making his son Belshazzar a grandson of Nebuchadnezzar. Nabonidus remained in power until the fall of Babylon, but tiring of the routine of government, he committed the kingship to his son and co-regent Belshazzar in year three of his seventeen-year reign. Nabonidus himself was absent from Babylon for prolonged periods of time. Thus Belshazzar was on the throne in Babylon the fateful night in October 539 B.C. when the armies of Cyrus took the city while the nobles were in festival behind their massive walls.

The mother of Nabonidus was a devotee of the moon god Sin, and evidently it was a festival in honor of this god that the Babylonians were observing the night of their demise. This was on the sixteenth of Tashritu by the Babylonian calendar: "On the sixteenth day (of Tasritu), Ugbaru, governor of Gutium, and the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without a battle … on the third day of the month, Arahsamnu, Cyrus entered Babylon … there was peace in the city when Cyrus spoke greetings to all of Babylon. He (Cyrus) appointed Gubaru governor of all the governors in Babylon."—Babylonian Chronicle, from The Reign of Nabonidus, Paul-Alain Beaulieu, pp. 224-225. Mention of the festival is on page 226.

Thus were Jeremiah's words fulfilled: "And all nations shall serve him [Neuchadnezzar], and his son [Evil-Merodach], and his son's son [his son-in-law Nabonidus' son, Belshazzar], until the very time of his land come: and then many nations and great kings shall serve themselves of him" (Jeremiah 27:7).

Cyrus the Great

The "many nations and great kings," heir to the spoils at the fall of Babylon, were those allied with Cyrus the Great, ruler of Persia. According to Herodotus, Cyrus had a Persian father (Cambyses) and a Median mother (Mandane), who was the daughter of Astyages, King of the Medes. Cyrus became king of Persia about 559 B.C. and defeated his grandfather Astyages about 550 B.C., assisted by troops from the Medes who rebelled against Astyages. Cyrus, known for his generous conduct, treated his defeated foe generously. "As for Astyages, Cyrus did him no further harm, and kept him in his own house till Astyages died" (Herodotus 1,130).

Daniel 7:5 represents the Persian Empire as a bear, a large, ponderous animal which overcomes its enemies with bulky strength, as the Persian armies ponderously overwhelmed their enemies. In the mouth of this bear were three ribs, thought to represent three powers overwhelmed by Persia on its rise to power--Lydia, Babylon, and Egypt. Lydia was governed by Croesus, defeated in 546 B.C., seven years before Cyrus took Babylon proper. King Croesus was noted for his wealth, which would have fallen to Cyrus and helped prepare his later conquests.

In 540 B.C. Cyrus massed his forces and moved toward Babylon. After some losses in the field, the Babylonians regrouped behind their defensive walls. But by diverting the Euphrates which ran through the city, Cyrus was able to march soldiers up the riverbed into Babylon on the famous festival evening. Thus he took Babylon by surprise, even though Belshazzar within was well aware of the besieging hosts without. This stratagem is the basis of Revelation 16:12, which represents Christ taking Mystic Babylon by drying up their support, represented by the Euphrates River. This may represent a drying up of the financial resources of Christendom in plague six, preparatory to their fall in plague seven. Babylon was the second "rib" to fall, and Egypt would be the third, but that conquest would await the reign of the son of Cyrus, who like his father was named Cambyses.

Cyrus was the "ravenous bird from the east" of Isaiah 46:11 whom God employed to terminate the kingdom of Babylon. Isaiah speaks of him as Jehovah's "anointed … Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations … and make the crooked places straight" (Isaiah 45:1,2). It is easy to see in these expressions how aptly Cyrus was a type of Christ. In his kingdom also, "the crooked places" will be made straight.

Darius the Mede

The book of Daniel speaks of Cyrus by name, but it names "Darius the Mede" as the leader who took the city and put Belshazzar to the sword. Who is he? This question has long engaged the minds of Christian believers and been a charge against the sacred text by unbelievers since it is apparent that Cyrus, not another royal predecessor, took Babylon and rode triumphantly into Babylon.

One reasonable suggestion is that Darius was a governor appointed by Cyrus. This position is nicely represented in the book Darius the Mede, A Study in Historical Identification, by John Whitcomb, 1963. However, a more attractive option may be that Darius and Mede and Cyrus the Persian were the same person, as maintained by Donald Wiseman, formerly of the British Museum before his retirement. This view notes that Cyrus' parentage showed him to be Median through his mother, and Persian through his father.

This view observes that the words, "Daniel prospered in the reign of Darius, and in the reign of Cyrus" (Daniel 6:28)--which at first seems to distinguish two persons--follows the same construction as 1 Chronicles 5:26, speaking of Pul and Tiglath-Pilnesser, who are known today to be two names for the same person. Modern translations of the latter text say, "Pul, king of Assyria, even … Tilgath-pilneser [a less familiar spelling of the famous king's name]," equating the two (NASB). The Hebrew waw can be translated either "and" or "even" according to context. The character of Darius as expressed in the narrative of Daniel chapter six (Daniel and the lion's den) certainly accords with the just character generally attributed to Cyrus.

Cyrus is a type of Christ. If Darius is the same person, then he is a type of Christ. It is of interest that his age at the fall of Babylon is recorded--an unusual record for Scriptures to register about a foreign king. The fall of Babylon occurred the same night as Daniel was interpreting the cryptic handwriting on the wall--"Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin"--numbered, numbered, weighed, divided. This referred to the judgment of Babylon. Being found morally wanting, the kingdom was divided to the Medes and Persians when it fell to Cyrus.

Commentators have noted the similarity of the cryptic words to monetary values that were numbered and weighed, namely the mena and shekel. If this similarity is pursued, the message refers to mena, mena, shekel, division. A shekel was 20 gerahs, and a Babylonian mena was 50 shekels. Thus these would refer to 1,000 gerahs, 1,000 gerahs, 20 gerahs, 500 gerahs (a divided mena). The total is 2,520 gerahs, which is coincident with the 2,520 years of Gentile rule, of which the 70 years of Babylon was the first and representative part (those seven decades foreshadowing the entire seven prophetic times).

The 2,520 years of Gentile rule expired in 1914, prefigured by the fall of literal Babylon when Darius was 62.

Dates of Daniel's Visions

The book of Daniel contains twelve chapters. The first six contain six sequential narratives about prominent experiences of Daniel or his Hebrew friends. The last six chapters contain four sequential visions which Daniel himself had. Each of these visions is dated. Daniel 7, which shows four world empires as four beasts rising from the sea, was given in the first year of Belshazzar. Since Belshazzar was appointed co-regent in the third year of his father Nabonidus, the first year of Belshazzar was the same as the third year of Nabonidus, namely 553 B.C.

Daniel 8, which shows Persia, Greece and Rome as a Ram, Goat, and Horn respectively, was dated to the third year of Belshazzar, thus 551 B.C. Daniel 9, containing the seventy-week prophecy, was given in the first year of Darius. Daniel 10, which begins a three-chapter narrative covering world history from Daniel's day until the millennial kingdom of Christ, was given in the third year of Cyrus.

Thus, taking Darius to be Cyrus, we have visions in years 1 and 3 of Belshazzar, and years 1 and 3 of Cyrus--a curious repetition of dates. The first two, during the reign of Babylon who represented the Gentile kingdoms, are similar to each other in that they both picture the kingdoms of this world as various beasts. The last two, in the reign of Cyrus who represented Christ, are a natural couplet because they climax at the first and second advents of Christ respectively.

The first vision, in 553 B.C., falls at the end of the forty years of Ezekiel 4:6. The second, in 551 B.C., is thirteen years before the Israelites' release in the first year of Cyrus, the same span as between the fall of Jerusalem and Ezekiel's vision of its restoration (Ezekiel 40:1), and between Ezra and Nehemiah. The third vision, in 538 B.C., was in the year of Israel's freedom from Babylon. The fourth vision, in 536 B.C., follows a delay of twenty-one days, representing the twemty-one-year delay before the temple at Jerusalem was completed in 515 B.C. (Ezra 6:15). Thus all four visions fall on dates of some significance.

Freed from Babylon

The wonderful thing about the reign of Cyrus was his decree releasing the Jews from bondage: "Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, The LORD God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the LORD God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem. And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the freewill offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem" (Ezra 1:2-4).

This was a formal decree, which the king put "also in writing" (Ezra 1:1) and registered in the royal archives, where it was later appealed to, searched for, and located to settle a dispute in the reign of the King Darius who followed Cyrus' son Cambyses. Evidently this is but a portion of Cyrus' edicts on the matter, as the later reference adds detailed specifics which are not mentioned above (Ezra 5:17 to 6:5).

Cyrus was evidently generous by nature, but in this spirit there were also political benefits for his government. The Babylonian kings had enriched themselves by spoil and conquest, and if subject peoples were not submissive, they were dislocated and scattered. Thus Babylon did to Judah as Assyria had done to Israel--displaced large populations to avoid sedition. Cyrus took a different tact. He became an emancipator and respected the various customs of worship, as later Persian rulers seem also to have done (Ezra 6:10). This afforded his subjects a reason to appreciate his administration, thus stabilizing his rule.

In Daniel 4 the restraints put upon Israel by Babylon were represented by bands of brass and iron around the stump of a tree. These metals are the strongest among those representing Gentile powers in the metallic image of Daniel 2. They are also used in Leviticus 26:19 to represent the strength of foreign kingdoms oppressing Israel.

When Isaiah says that for Cyrus God will "break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron" (Isaiah 45:2), this evidently refers to breaking the power of Babylon. This also breaks the power restraining Israel from sprouting. Thus Israel was free to return to their land and grow again as a people in their homeland.

In the larger picture, now that the seven prophetic "times" against Israel have expired, Christ has broken the restraints and Israel has blossomed again as a nation in their ancient homeland. Psalm 107:16 speaks of what God does for Israel, whom he formerly punished for their disobedience: "He hath broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder."

Isaiah Chapters 52 and 53

The first twelve verses of Isaiah 52 speak of Israel's deliverance from Babylon, capped with the exhortation of verses 11 and 12, "Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the LORD. For ye shall not go out with haste, nor go by flight [as for example they did at the Exodus], for the LORD will go before you; and the God of Israel will be your rereward."

Paul applied the passage in a higher sense to spiritual Israel in his day, citing a portion of Isaiah 52:7 in Romans 10:15. The brethren today apply this passage also to spiritual Israel fleeing mystic Babylon. These are both reasonable applications. The immediate and direct meaning, however, was to Israel fleeing literal Babylon.

After Israel's regathering and an unspecified hiatus, the next prophetic episode mentioned by Isaiah was the appearance of Messiah: "Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled," leading to Isaiah 53, the famous Messianic prophecy of Christ who "hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted" (Isaiah 53:4).

Under his administration Israel will be gathered, nourished, blessed, redeemed, and spread the knowledge of their Messiah throughout the earth. "As many were amazed at him--so marred was his appearance from that of a man, and his form from that of the sons of men--so shall he startle many nations, on account of him kings shall shut their mouths; for what has not been told them shall they see, and what they have not heard shall they contemplate. Who could have believed what we have heard?" (Isaiah 52:14 to 53:1, Smith-Goodspeed).

Thus will all the kingdoms of earth appreciate the incredible news of Redemption, and the sweet gospel of our Redeemer